In the last 20 years, Mumbai has transformed into a city dominated by skyscrapers. Some are fighting back

Words by VYJAYANTHI V. RAO | 04 Nov, 2019

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was commonplace to hear that upwards of 5,000 people were moving to Mumbai every day. The Indian State’s seeming neglect of urban development in favour of agrarian reform and rural development was reflected in a general political unease towards cities. Cities were seen as unruly sites of gathering. They were viewed as unpredictable political spaces, into which vast numbers of people were moving daily. This understanding set the tone for the xenophobic violence and gangsterism of the period that preceded the fully-fledged globalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s.

In Modi-era India, the numerical anxiety has given way to a more verbose suspicion of neighbours and neighbourhoods that are perceived to harbour anti-national sentiment. The current mood is very different from the comparatively more intimate forms of violence experienced by many Mumbaikars who belonged to minority groups during the bloodshed of the 1992 riots, sparked by the destruction of the Babri mosque in northern India. The Babri riots prompted introspection that resulted in the appearance of the first collections of scholarly essays on Mumbai’s fabled modernity, which had suffered a grievous blow as a result of the riots. If Mumbai’s modernity had been taken for granted before, it was now called into question as it was clear that the cosmopolitan and convivial “spirit” of the city had been irrevocably injured by the heinous acts of violence against minorities in plain sight.

By the early 2000s, there was broad collective experience and perception of change across different classes and social groups. A radical physical change was occurring. Skyscrapers and slums were mushrooming across greater Mumbai, leaping through a bewildering array of regulatory loopholes designed to both constrict and expand the supply of buildings. The polarity of these regulations, which sought to allow two opposing principles simultaneously, was puzzling. Everyone attempted to understand the sort of built forms and communities that would emerge from the confusion. It took a collective effort across multiple disciplines to begin to comprehend this loophole-urbanism that was turning Mumbai inside-out and upside-down. Before our eyes, Mumbai was transforming into a vertical city.

There is a newly heightened consciousness of how the development processes that are changing the fabric of the city take place

Mumbai’s “megamorphosis” (as a 2009 conference that highlighted ideas to “make Mumbai a world-class city” once called it) is already a thing of the past. In less than two decades, citizens have become entangled in a reality dominated by tall buildings. These have varying footprints but are shooting skyward between the congested by-lanes of the historic centre. Mumbai is now home to thousands of high-rises and hundreds of skyscrapers. It’s currently one of the largest construction sites in the world. Alongside these domineering giants are multiple congestions. Settlements of tiny dwellings, packed into improvised streets, are increasingly out of view but still unavoidably in the centre of things. They are stuck with the label of “slum”; places to be skirted around and whose fate is yet to be settled. More than half of Mumbai’s millions live here.

It is impossible to fully comprehend either the socio-economic or political culture of the 2,000 settlements within the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) that have been legally declared “slums”. There are enormous variations amongst these settlements concerning security of tenure, connections to water, sewerage and electricity, and forms of leadership. Since 2014, I have worked with the leaders of a community in north-east Mumbai called Sathe Nagar, named after a famous Marathi literary figure with roots in one of the large Dalit communities in the region.

Vyjayanthi Rao is a researcher based between New York and Mumbai